The ABCs of Middle Level Education
7 Questions & Actions to Build Great Teaching, Learning, and Leading
Put your hard hats on and grab your tool belts, people. It's time to discuss construction in the critical middle grades. As a middle school and high school teacher, I always believed that learning happens as a constructionist endeavor—because it brings together individual mindsets, experiences, and prior knowledge and marries them into a collective understanding about something. To be 110% clear, it's not about creating a mental melting pot that melds everyone's thinking together and dissolves the individual perspective; rather, it's about creating a learning community that builds something together.
The same is true, in fact, for school administration. I always believed that sustained school growth happens when we collaboratively construct a common vision and speak with a common language about what we want to build on the bright landscape ahead. That doesn't mean that we erase or marginalize staff members who have a divergent point of view; rather, we celebrate and honor those differences as we construct. And it sounds messy and complicated. But really, the magic of educational construction in the middle grades should follow a simple formula: YBYS + IBMS=WLMST [You Bring Your Stuff and I'll Bring My Stuff and We'll Learn More Stuff Together]. Clearly, educational construction isn't as simple as bricks and mortar and blueprints, but there are similarities that are worth exploring. So if teaching and learning were like construction, what questions would we ask and what actions would we take to build something great for the students, teachers, and families we serve?
1. What do we want to build and why?
Action: Explore internal and external educational blueprints
and then courageously construct. Use internal blueprints (i.e., school, team, and grade visions; our students and their learning styles and interests; our own interests, vision, and philosophy about teaching and learning) and external blueprints (i.e., content area standards, community norms, and district and state vision and expectations).
2. What resources and tools will we need to build?
Action: Determine and request a stock of educational resources and then courageously construct. Use on-site materials (i.e., books, computers, teammates), off-site materials (i.e., primary source documents, websites, community members), and intra-site materials (i.e., time and emotional and mental currency).
3. Where do we want to build?
Action: Explore the potential internal and external learning environments and then courageously construct. Use internal spaces (i.e., classroom area, hallways, large rooms like the library, connected rooms, cafeteria), external spaces (i.e., outside, bus dock, outdoor playgrounds, community spaces, field trips), and intra-spaces (i.e., reflective space for mental and emotional journeys)
4. What's our building timeline?
Action: Figure out when this can happen and then courageously construct. Use internal chronographs (i.e., professional, classroom, team, grade level, and school calendars and the bell schedule), external chronographs (i.e., testing and district calendars and student and family calendars), intra-chronographs (i.e., personal and emotional calendars)
5. How will we involve everyone in the building process?
Action: Determine the interests, strengths, and challenges of all stakeholders, find roles for the work, and then courageously construct. Give interest and learning inventories to all stakeholders and use that information to decide on the individual roles and teams/groups needed for the work ahead, collaborate with teachers of all students to ensure that accommodations to the work are carefully planned, and inform families and community members and give them specific ways/times that they can be involved.
6. How will we know that we've successfully built something?
Action: Figure out the best ways to measure what's been built and then courageously construct. With all stakeholders, collaboratively construct a rubric that assesses the different elements of the work (i.e., interests and standards covered, social-emotional and behavioral learning elements examined, college and career readiness aptitudes/skills developed) and use that rubric throughout the work to determine progress, process, remediations, and celebrations.
So one last action step to drive it home: deconstruction. As critical participants in the craft of educational construction, we need to deconstruct and inspect foundations, especially as we approach new lists and charts, new experiences, new schools, and (even as this year begins to close) new school years on the horizon. With the construction of a house, if the foundation is cracked, misaligned or sinking, it doesn't matter how well we build the house itself. It's going to fall and fail. Similarly in the world of education, if the foundation upon which we construct teaching and learning isn't both flexible and resilient, that edu-home will falter, too. Therefore, before we practice educational construction, we should ask the hard questions that inspect and deconstruct the foundation of it all.
So as an educational construction-ist in the critical middle grades, what tough, inspired questions are you asking to deconstruct and courageously construct with your teachers, students, families, and community members?
Are Your Students Ready for the 22nd Century?
The four new 22nd Century Cs are here everyone, so buckle up. Get your mental crockpots ready to add these ingredients to the recipe. They are fresh. They are ready. They are now. And they mean no disrespect to the 21st Century Cs that we all know and love: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Collaboration. Clearly, those Cs are essential parts of a balanced educational diet for every student—and in particular, for every young adolescent we serve. Yes, our students are communicating more than ever through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. In many ways, one single text with a message, a picture, an emoji, and a video link contains more reading tasks than most handwritten essays! And yes, we in the critical middle grades are helping them become more critical thinkers as they embark on those communicative efforts. And yes, we are also providing them more and more opportunities to create and collaborate in our classes through innovative practices like Genius Hour, Coding, Makerspace, and class blogs! In middle school we explode those 21st Century Cs on a daily basis for all students!
But the 22nd Century is around the corner! And our kiddos will need new Cs for that bright road forward. With one eye on the rearview mirror of the past, one eye on the windshield of the future, and both hands on the steering wheel, here are the four 22nd Century Cs that I propose for middle level education (and perhaps for all levels of education!):
- Care: To bring diverse hearts and minds together, we need to help our students understand and act from an ethic of care. Too often, we push our students with a lever of pragmatism—with an emphasis on production and efficiency to achieve a tangible goal. And while we need to get things done, tasks accomplished, and products 3D printed, we cannot do so at the detriment of care. We should instill in our students the need for both mindfulness and heartfulness: asking with care, listening with care, being present with care, following-up with care, writing and speaking with care, acting with care, etc. We don't need a packaged curriculum to accomplish that. We simply need to model and practice the art of care ourselves.
- Connection: To build positive bridges forward, we need to help our students understand and act on the desire to authentically connect with others. Sadly, many people in our society have lost the will to connect with others—especially others who have different opinions. It's easier to watch the news channel that aligns with our views. It's easier to stomach a tweet that matches our mindset. It's simpler to have a conversation with someone who has the same views that we have. But that's not how learning happens. Vygotsky knew it back in the day when he explored the concept of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): we learn when we stretch ourselves to learn beyond our ZPD. Therefore, we need to fill our students with an unquenchable desire to connect with others—because they are curious and because they care. If we want our students to shake hands with a fellow human being regardless of their differences, we need to teach them the importance of connecting and stepping out of their insular comfort zone and into their open discomfort zone. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do that. We need to model it in our everyday practice.
- Culture: To create joyous, growth-mindset futures, we need to help our students understand how to create spaces of genuine positivity. Recent studies about the impact of happiness in the workplace from companies like Zappos have revealed that when the culture of the organization is positive and welcoming, people are more motivated and engaged in their work. They like what they do, and they want to do it well! In other words, while we can motivate people through negative factors like competition, greed, and fear, the culture created by such motivational factors is toxic and ultimately poisonous. Our classrooms and schools, therefore, need to be model cultures of joy, positivity, and happiness, so our young adolescent students can flourish and thrive as learners now, and most importantly, so they can know how to create those cultures themselves in future classrooms, schools, and work spaces. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
- Community: To foster truly inclusive learning communities, we need to help our students understand and act on the value of involving all voices in the process. Too often, we operate and separate ourselves into silos that privatize, divide and ultimately limit our own capacity and the capacity of everyone around us. Instead of embarking in the messy work of community-building (which involves another key 22nd century C: compromise), we often like to stay in the safe confines of our own garden plots, tending the rows we know. However, communities form and flourish when we reach out to every stakeholder and involve them in the work. Thus, our schools need to make sure that we are doing more than simply informing parents, families, and business partners about what we're doing; rather, we need to seek out their opinions and insights. We should do this not only because it is critical work in cultivation and community-building. We should do it because it shows our students that they also need to practice this artful, challenging work if they want futures that embrace all voices and push back against the limiting, fence lines of division. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
So how is your school preparing your students to practice the 22nd Century Cs, as well as those in the already distant 21st Century?
How Will You Share Our Critical Story?
Now we begin an exciting journey with the letter C, which is one of the most important letters in the world of middle level education. From the shape of it, it resembles an opening, a welcoming place, a safe harbor—all things that young adolescents want and need. While they may not shout it from the rooftops (because many of them are masters at "saving face" and acting "cool"), our students come to us looking for a steady, open place to land and bring their lives every day. It's up to us to maintain that openness in word, deed, communication, and in our supportive programs.
It's important to note as well that the C is rounded on its foundation, giving it the ability to flex and rock if something hits it suddenly and violently. That aspect of its shape is also important to consider as we think about the developmental responsiveness of our interactions with young adolescents and the initiatives we create to help them. While they must be steady and consistent, they cannot be so rigorous that they are inflexible. Rather, they must be able to bend and respond when the unexpected happens—and our young adolescents definitely bring the unexpected. In short, we have to be able to rock (like the C) when they roar.
And there's no denying that the sound of the letter C is the perfect sound for middle level education. Go ahead, say it. C. It seems to go on for miles and miles, open and expansive and ready to be the water for any vessel. An amazing middle grades school, teacher, administrator, staff member, after/before-school provider, or parent/guardian must behave and be present like the unflappable sea of C for every young adolescent they serve. The kids are counting on us to be the letter C: steady, calm, and a consistent way to carry them onward.
Now that we've covered the letter itself, what will be the first C word that we explore for the middle grades? Create? Construction? Community? Culture? Caterwaul? Cheeseburger? Perhaps critical is the best first word. Why? From my time in the classroom, in the administrative office, and in schools working with AMLE, I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about the middle grades. It's an undeniable fact that boatloads of attention (and funds) are paid to the elementary, high school, and higher education settings—oftentimes to the detriment of the middle grades. We are either forgotten, misunderstood, or relegated to the shadows.
But why is that? Are we not worthy of the same degree of attention? Do our students not deserve an equal place on the educational stage? Do our efforts for our young adolescents not require the same funds, policies, and advocacy? I think (and every middle level educator I know thinks) that our young adolescents deserve and require even more than an equal place. They should have a critical place, an elevated place on which we can shine a spotlight on their unlimited potential as well as on their blossoming, unique needs.
But too often we are told to wait. Too often we are told that our kids aren't ready. One prime example happened to me while I was speaking at a conference for college admissions counselors a couple years back, and I have to share it here because it continues to anger me to this moment. It screams to me about the lack of urgency that people feel about the middle grades. At this conference, the exhibit hall space was filled with vendors peddling the latest college and career wares (e.g., technology solutions, college trackers, occupation explorers). As the curious person I am, I walked casually yet earnestly through the hall and occasionally stopped to ask vendors, "So what kind of work do you do with middle schools and young adolescents?" Every single vendor looked at me like I was crazy to ask such a question and then without fail, they responded with, "Oh, those kids aren't really ready for this. We work with high schools and their students." As blood coursed through my veins, I nodded and walked away, resisting the urge to kick their booths down to the concrete floor with my red shoes. Not ready? Those kids? Why does that attitude prevail?
I have a theory. And it's related to storytelling. Despite all of our efforts, our research, and our pleas, the story that continues to be told about middle school is that it is a time of wild flux, crazy change, and unfettered shift for young adolescents. The narrative that most of our society loves to tell is this one: junior high/middle school is a horrible time (because we remember it as a horrible time for us) and middle school kids are aimless people with attitudes, acne, and awkwardness (like we remember ourselves back then) who don't know what they're doing now or what they want to do in the future. So yeah, why should we spend additional time and effort on middle school and those kids? Especially when it feels emotionally better to spend time and money on the story of elementary school and the "cute" and "innocent" characters in that tale, and similarly, when it feels more practical and forward-thinking to invest in the story of high school and the more "stable" and "prepared" characters in that tale.
That predilection and those misconceptions make me both angry and sad. I'm angry that people see middle school and young adolescents that way. Those of us who work with "those kids" fully embrace their uniqueness—because that's what makes them awesome. That's what makes them such a gift to work with every day. So it angers me that people prejudge middle school and then neglect us because they don't see it as a critical age. It also makes me sad because I'm part of the problem. I suppose I haven't done enough to tell the other story of middle school and of young adolescents so people understand just how amazing and critical the story is. Perhaps I haven't done enough to "flip the script" when people talk poorly about our students. I've celebrated middle school throughout Middle Level Education Month like I should, but perhaps I'm only sounding the proud trumpet in the same chamber every day.
So now's the time. It's time to blast the critical song of the middle grades to everyone so they can know what we know and feel what we feel... That middle school, middle grades, middle level education, and young adolescents are most definitely critical characters in the story of education's past, present, and glorious future. Pay attention and pay us mind.
So how, when, and to whom will you share middle level education's critical story?
Awareness, Acting, and More!
Sticking with the letter A, here's an Announcement: It's March, and Middle Level Education Month has officially begun! On behalf of everyone here at AMLE, thank you for everything you do every day to make teaching and learning blast off like a rocket for young adolescents. Thank you for advocating for young adolescents, for your fellow educators, and for the cause of the critical middle grades. Here are some quick ideas to help you celebrate Middle Level Education Month (MLEM):
- Visit www.amle.org/mlem for resources, sample advocacy letters, and tips for celebrating MLEM.
- Tweet a picture of you, your team, etc. with the "I Love Middle Grades" sign to #MLEM17
- Email April Tibbles, AMLE director of communications, at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org with details about awesome MLEM celebrations happening at your school!
- And at any time during the month of March, feel free to randomly stand up (in a faculty meeting, on a bus, on the roof of the school, in a crowded restaurant, in a quiet library) and shout out loud and proud, "Hey! I was once a young adolescent! You were once a young adolescent! We were all once young adolescents! And I am proud to be a middle level educator who teaches, leads, and serves young adolescents every day!" (for this last suggestion, be ready to hear waves of applause or to run somewhere safe).
And with every beginning there is also usually an ending. So it's time to bid farewell to the letter A for this blog. It's brought us some good times and some serious times, hasn't it? Ideas about Access and Advocacy, Anger, Appreciation, and Adolescents. Of course, there are A words that I've left out that also relate to middle level education, and before we move on to the next letter, I'd like to pay tribute to those words now.
- Abilities: As middle school educators, we must continually remind our students that they have powerful abilities—abilities that need to be cultivated, nurtured, and celebrated. And as middle school educators, we must recognize and honor our own abilities and push each other to continually hone our pedagogical craft.
- Art: Teaching is an art form, and it demands that we practice it passionately, consistently, and with commitment to the craft. We need to support each other as artists, allowing for creative risk-taking in the classroom and embracing the messy reality that is educational artwork. And as a content area, art should be included in every classroom—not just in art class. Giving students the chance to demonstrate mastery through art is a glorious thing!
- And: Of all the conjunctions I know, I am a huge fan of And. While I'm also a fan of the skepticism of But and Or, I am crazy about And. It represents what young adolescents need and what we need from each other. And is the positive connector. The affirmative bridge-maker. The welcoming water of opportunity that carries us onward. Instead of "You can do this, but you can't do that," what would happen if we said to students and to each other, "We can do this and that. We can dream this and that. We can explore this and that"? And has the power to kick down fences that may limit young adolescents and ourselves.
- Accountability: Oh boy, this one can be a doozy. At the risk of irritating some folks, I have to admit that I don't think accountability in education is such a bad thing. In many ways, it's just another way of saying responsibility. We are responsible and accountable for the educational wellness of our students—just like doctors are responsible and accountable for the health and wellness of their patients. So how did accountability get such an ugly reputation? Perhaps that happened when we started to tie teachers' pay to accountability systems. Or perhaps it happened when high-stakes tests became the paramount accountability measure we used to determine a teacher's and a school's worth. Perhaps we need to take accountability back and reclaim it as a positive, driving force for responsible school work.
- Act: As teachers and leaders in the middle grades, we are wonderful actors. And I don't mean that we put on false personas and read from scripted lines to manipulate people and situations. Rather, I mean that we are talented actors who know how to adjust our words, mannerisms, tones, and even our props for the various audiences with whom we interact. In a 10 minute span, we can unjam a locker, soothe a kid in crisis, email an eager parent, and collaborate with a teammate on a lesson plan. I realize that the Oscars just concluded, but I think middle level educators deserve Academy Awards for the exceptional performances we do on a daily basis. Where's our gold statue and after party? Act also means that effective middle level educators do something when they sense that a child is in crisis or when they realize that a child is struggling in their class. That's the difference between showing up and stepping up. We act and we step up.
- Awards: Speaking of awards, how do we increase recognition so more students are celebrated? It's good to award students for high academic achievement through end-of-the-semester ceremonies. It's nice to hand out certificates for perfect attendance at the end of the year. But typically, it's the same students getting those awards. And the same students not getting those awards are feeling ignored. In addition, how do we increase teacher recognition so more educators are also celebrated? Clearly, it's great to have a way to recognize a Teacher of the Year, but could we do more to shine a light on best practices and best teaching? And, of course, this raises the debate of how awards detract from intrinsic motivation—a topic best left for another time and another blog.
- Awareness: in the middle grades, awareness is a key ingredient—because of the amount and pace of change that young adolescents go through; because of their predilection for risk-taking behaviors; because of their often mercurial emotions that influence decision-making; because of their ardent and sometimes arduous search for identity, acceptance, and belonging. It all happens so quickly that we need to be keenly aware, which means noticing the large, sweeping changes that our students make as well as the small, subtle ones—and then taking the time to act on that awareness. Because when we were young adolescents, we wished we had that support. This also means that we watch out for the adults in our buildings. We need to be aware of teachers who may be dealing with challenges personally or professionally, and we need to act on that awareness. Because when we are struggling in our classrooms or in our lives, we wish we had that support. We deserve it. Our students deserve it.
So there's the final A list of A words for the ABCs blog. What A words would you add that reflect the critical middle grades? And stay tuned, eager readers, for the next letter around the bend for the ABCs blog!
All in for Middle Level Education Month!
You can't write an ABCs blog about middle level education with the letter A and not write about Adolescents. Not only are they the reason why we celebrate Middle Level Education Month in March, but they are the main magnificent reason why we do what we do. They are also the reason we don't what we don't. What does that mean? In order to answer that curious question, it's important to remind ourselves about their unique characteristics because they are unlike anybody else on this planet.
In This We Believe (pp. 53-62), we are reminded about the true nature of adolescent achievement. Typically, when we talk about achievement, we discuss grades, added-value, measured progress, and assessment results, but these pages always help me remember that adolescents are trying to achieve in many different areas. Specifically, they are trying to find success in 5 key areas we can't ignore:
- Physical: Adolescents are going through the most rapid physical change of their lives, and they are doing so at irregular rates. That's why we have students in the same school who are already gifted athletes sprinting, throwing, and dancing like professionals as well as students who are earnestly working through the essentials of coordination, balance, and movement.
- Cognitive-Intellectual: Like their bodies, adolescents' brains are also growing and changing at a rapid rate, and that change can be similarly uneven. That's why they tend to act impulsively and make risky decisions without thinking them all the way through. There are changes going on in the frontal lobe; in the myelin sheath; in the synapses; and in the mental processing that affect foresight, organization, time-management and more. In addition, the increase in hormones affects how the brain responds to stress, fatigue, and crisis. That's why we have students who are making tremendous leaps in abstract, divergent thinking as well as students who are working through concrete, sequential thinking. In fact, the only other time that we develop this quickly is birth to three years old.
- Moral-ethical: Adolescents are beginning to see their immediate world and the larger world as the morally complicated landscapes they are. As a result, our students are often at conflict with the world as it is and the world as they think/hope/dream it should be. Their “moral thermometers” are still taking shape as they gauge the ethical temperature of a situation; therefore, in their search for justice, they sometimes are quick to measure others' flaws while they are slow to see those same flaws in themselves. That's why we have students who are able to grasp society's missteps (and its magnificence) and help peers solve conflicts as well as students who are raging because they feel like no one gets them, the world is totally messed up, and they are all alone.
- Psychological: Adolescents are wrestling with issues of identity at all times: figuring out who they are, who they used to be, who they want to be, how they fit in, how they stand out, why they matter, what/who matters to them, and more. As the rest of the world speeds by them with all the answers, it's like they're riding bikes in deep, soft sand: unbalanced, unsteady, difficult. At the same time, many young adolescents cry out for trust to express their identity and independence, yet many times, they aren't quite sure what to do when they are given a wide berth of freedom. They are, in short, both psychologically vulnerable and resilient. That's why we have students who are already developing strong, confident identities, passions and interests as well as students who are working through the gossamer of their selves every minute of every day.
- Social-emotional: Adolescents are examining external social situations that are increasingly complex, and they are trying to navigate those often turbulent waters using internal compasses and other tools that are still developing. That's why they sometimes misread and overreact to verbal and nonverbal language while wearing their hearts like vibrant neon lights on their sleeves. That's why we have students who are able to work cooperatively and be friends with anyone as well as students whose friends turn into frenemies and enemies and back again from homeroom to lunch.
So what does all of this mean to educators and other folks who work with young adolescents? First, awareness is a great first step that leads to service. When we are aware (and we make others aware), we are better able to meet young adolescents' unique needs. Second, positive change for young adolescents begins with that pronoun: we. It's not enough for one person on the grade level, team, or school to talk about meeting the needs of the whole child. It's about we. And us. It has to be a common acknowledgement of and commitment to the fact that young adolescents need learning environments that are “Developmentally Responsive, Challenging, Empowering, and Equitable” (This We Believe, p. 14). Because our students are filled with so much potential and possibility. They can be boisterous. They can be brilliant. They can be challenging. They can be change-agents. They can be demonstrative. They can be dreamers. They can be lazy. They can be leaders. They can be selfish. They can be selfless. They can be wild. They can be wonderful. We embrace the fact that a young adolescent has the potential to make us tear up from laughing or tear our hair out from frustration. We realize that a young adolescent has the potential to make us overjoyed from a sudden epiphany they've had or overwhelmed from their lack of foresight and decision-making. We know that a young adolescent has the potential to make us feel like a distinguished educator who can do no wrong or like an extinguished educator who can do no right. And those of us who work with young adolescents are thankful because all of that swirling potential is what fills our days with such energy and limitless possibility.
So how will you and your school celebrate young adolescents (and those who serve them) every day—and especially during the days in March for Middle Level Education Month?
Appreciative Things to do and My Appreciation List
Now that Valentine's Day is behind us, let's talk honestly about love and appreciation. The most important part of Valentine's Day is about what you do after Valentine's Day. It's about how you show your appreciation the next day and every day after—after the flowers have been delivered, the cards have been written, the candy boxes have been unwrapped, and the special dinners have been eaten. It's about the small things we do every day for each other. That's what real appreciation is all about.
So what's this have to do with middle level education? We know the deal: we all need to raise the praise and increase the appreciation in the middle grades. And yes, there are plenty of articles, blogs, posts, and books with practical tips and strategies on boosting morale and keeping faculty members happy and appreciated in schools. Take the time to read them—especially if you think appreciation is an overrated concept. Guess what? It's isn't. In fact, appreciation is super important.
Here's my quick list of things to do to amp up appreciation in our schools:
- Be the example. Spread appreciation around like it's soft butter on a warm biscuit. Like it's sunshine on a cloudy day. Like it's a cold and you are sneezing praise all over the place without a tissue. Leave your own baggage at the curb and genuinely thank someone.
- Get out there. An appreciative email is nice and convenient, but if you really want to show appreciation, go find the person and say it to them. It may be a little awkward at first, but nothing shows appreciation more than when they can hear it in your voice and see it in your face. And if that's just too much for you, call them on the phone.
- Do the expected. Take care of the things that teachers, students, and families are asking you to do and expecting you to do. When you fulfill your duties and responsibilities from a place of love, you show appreciation.
- Do the unexpected. Say the little positive thing to someone in the hallway. Put a glowing note on someone's desk or in someone's mailbox at a random time. Tell a student that you appreciate that they're in your class on some unexpected Wednesday afternoon. Deliver fresh biscuits to every teacher in your building on rollerblades while wearing a "Hot 4 Teacher" sign (something our admin team joyously did after testing…just because). Sometimes, appreciation doesn't necessarily need to be planned out and put on a checklist.
- Listen. Show appreciation in conversations. Instead of thinking about your own response/reaction/rebuttal, actually hush your mind and listen to the words that someone else is saying. And if they're sharing a problem, let them know you hear them and that their problem is real and you get it. Sometimes, people don't want you to be Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. They just want to talk it out with someone who appreciates them.
- Be real. When you raise the praise for someone, get emotional. Get specific. Get genuine. And if the moment arises and you have their permission, get public with your appreciation. Stand up in a faculty meeting and shout your love and appreciation from the rooftops! With that in mind....
Here's my post-Valentine's day appreciation list. What would yours look like?
I love and appreciate (knowing that I'm flawed and might forget someone):
- My wife who taught second grade for six years and now works at an elementary school as an aide for students with severe and profound needs. She busts it every day and does so with grace, care, and kindness. Oh, and she's also been through it all with me and our two boys when I was a teacher and administrator and continues to keep it real with me as I do what I do for AMLE.
- My two boys who amaze me every day with their boundless minds, hearts, and spirits. They, too, have been through it when I was an administrator and continue to rock and roar now that I'm with AMLE. I marvel at the amazing things they say, the awesome connections they make, and the futures that they are creating for themselves every day.
- My parents who showed me through their tireless example what it means to serve and to give back. My father was a US Marine for 29 years and retired so he could get his physical therapist degree and help people in need. My mother was an operating room nurse who worked in the most urgent situations and was on call all the time, but never complained.
- All the schools I attended and all the teachers I had who cared for me, who put up with me, who connected with me, who pushed me, who made me feel like I made difference in the world—and as a military child (not a brat), I attended a lot of schools (both public and Dept of Defense schools): Lilyputs and McGogney Elementary in D.C.; John B. Dey Elementary in California; Pattimura Elementary in Jakarta; Alanton Elementary, Lynnhaven Jr. High, and Frank W. Cox HS in Virginia Beach; Lejeune HS in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina; and JMU and GSU, too. I don't want to call out specific teachers here because I'll probably forget someone, and that's not the point. Every teacher had an impact on me, and I appreciate them.
- Tracy Sonafelt and Betsy Zimmer at Harrisonburg High School back in 1994, my first year of teaching. They made me feel welcomed at the school, while also showing me the ropes. And they never made me feel inept or inadequate—even though I'm sure I did some inept things as a first year teacher.
- My first students back in 1994 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I appreciate their tolerance as I tried to teach ninth and tenth grade Basic English as a first year teacher.
- Anita Jackson, Jane Jones, Barbara McGuire, Susan Messer, and all of the great folks at Ridgeview Middle School in Fulton County Schools in Georgia, who were there when I first started teaching middle school. Coming from a high school setting and from a different state, I was like a deer in headlights and they showed me how to embrace working with young adolescents.
- Vicki Denmark, who brought me on as a teacher at River Trail MS in Fulton County, who taught me as one of my best professors at Georgia State U., and who showed me what exceptional leadership looks like. I appreciate her wisdom and her guidance at all times.
- Elizabeth Fogartie and everyone at Webb Bridge Middle School in Fulton County. Ms. Fogartie brought me on as an assistant principal and gave me freedom to try new programs and initiatives to help students and teachers—and she also had high standards and expectations that helped me stay in line. And she continues to be a middle grades leader today. All of the teachers and staff at Webb Bridge helped me grow as an administrator with their patience, diligence, and humor. I used to make them homemade cookies to show my appreciation during the school year, but I know there aren't enough cookies in the world to show my appreciation.
- All of the people in the Haynes Bridge Middle School community who supported me during my time there.
- Sherri Black, former principal at Big Creek Elementary School, who took a chance on a middle school educator and brought me on as her assistant principal. Among the many lessons I learned, I appreciate everything you taught me about elementary school life and about speaking with one voice as an administrative team.
- The entire AMLE team—present and former. I appreciate you setting the stage for everything we do in the middle grades and for bringing me on the team. We are a merry band of misfits, and I appreciate each and every one of you. I appreciate how you work so tirelessly to bring great resources to folks everywhere, to serve with grace and joy, and to amplify the voices of middle grades educators everywhere.
- All of the educational consultants I work with at AMLE who really get it. You, who show your appreciation and honor for the cause of education. You, who understand that the real, real, real work is being done in the classrooms and schoolhouses. You, who understand that we're in a privileged position to go out and deliver workshops, have conversations about teaching and learning, and offer suggestions through our content. You, who drive the miles, take the flights, pack the bags, leave your families, plan the sessions, do great jobs—all for middle level education.
- All of the middle level educators out there who are doing the work in the field and serving young adolescents, their families, and the critical cause of middle level education. Because I've been in the classroom and in the administrative office, I know you are busting your hind parts each and every day to make all of this happen.
Again, I know that I may have forgotten someone on this appreciation list—and that's because my brain is addled and also because no list is ever done. So now that Valentine's Day is over, it's time for all of us to show the love and appreciation. So get out there, be real, make a list, and share it with the people who matter and who you appreciate in the critical middle grades.
Two Quick Tips for Helping Students in Anger
With Valentine's Day right around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to write about anger. Sounds about right. Before I was a middle school teacher and administrator, I was a young adolescent. And as I've mentioned on previous posts, my middle grades diet was a balance of happiness and sadness—with a nice dollop of anger thrown in for good measure.
Thanks to some kids (and a teacher or two) who were mean, nasty, and driven to target new kids who didn't "fit in," I was filled with rage on many days as a kid at my junior high school in Virginia Beach. I was, in fact, one of those kids who did good in school and kept quiet, while simmering underneath was a cauldron of anger ready to explode. Hello, nice to meet you. While my anger has created some interesting emotional echoes that I continue to hear as an adult, all of that fiery emotion has also taught me a fruitful lesson about anger and young adolescents (and adults, as well). Saddle up. It's a radical idea: while it's important to teach our students about love and understanding, I also think we need to teach kids about what to do with anger and misunderstanding.
Why would we do something like that? Isn't there enough anger in the world? Why do we need to talk about it in our schools, too? Here's why. We have a problem with how we deal with anger in schools. We tend to treat anger as a deviant, abnormal reaction to the world—and consequently, we tend to treat students who are angry as deviant and abnormal, as well. When we label students like that or tell them to "just calm down" and "get over it" when they're angry, many things can happen.
Here are four consequences that can happen when we just shut down an angry student and dismiss their anger:
- An angry student might just get angrier and do something worse ("You all don't get me. You don't care. You just want me to shut up. Just wait until tomorrow.").
- An angry student might learn that anger is wrong, and therefore, they are wrong and they don't belong—and they drop out mentally or physically ("Man, I knew it. I'll never fit in at this school. I'm never coming back.").
- An angry student might not get any tools or strategies to help them deal with their anger in the future, so they get stuck in the same cycle ("So what if I cussed him out or hit him? What else should I do when he steps up to me next time? I'm going to the same thing.").
- An angry student might become an angry adult who burns more bridges with fiery words and deeds and becomes more isolated and more angry ("You don't agree with me? You're just like everyone else. I'm done with you. I'm going to stick with people who think just like me.")
If those consequences are possible, don't we have the duty and obligation to try something different with anger? If we want to empower young adolescents, increase their achievement in all areas, and create stronger, more positive learning communities, shouldn't we do more to help students deal with anger? Where do we begin? Two quick suggestions.
First, we need to de-stigmatize anger and treat it as the normal, natural emotion we all feel—as kids and adults—and we need to redirect it. I've seen and heard a lot of folks deal with angry students by yelling back at them and getting in their faces to show them "who's in charge," and that's a terrific way to escalate things. It can turn a simmering situation into a volcanic one in an instant. So let's flip that script and ask caring questions, listen, be there, and check our own tone; that's how we can de-escalate and defuse it. Model the emotional expectation you would like to see. As a middle school assistant principal for six years, I had my share of angry kids in my office because they took their anger and lashed out in ways that were destructive to themselves, to others, to their schools, and to their futures. After we completed the disciplinary paperwork and I made phone calls home, we talked about the root of the anger—the facts of the situation—and I always reminded them, "Anger is a very natural emotion. Everyone gets angry. It's what you do with your anger that will make the biggest difference in your life. Artists get angry and create. Writers get angry and write. Musicians get angry and they make songs. Athletes get angry and they take it out on the field, the court, or the track. So what can you do, who can you talk to, what can you create with your anger the next time you feel this way?" In fact, as the parent of a seventh grade boy, I've had to give this same talk with him after he punched a wall in P.E. and broke his hand in anger. Clearly, anger is a reality in the school house and on the home front. What's also a reality is this: when we talk to kids about anger as something that's natural and normal, they will talk about it honestly and work on it with us collaboratively—as long as we continue to follow-up with them and listen.
Second, when working with an angry student, we need to remind ourselves about being this age and we need to check out the characteristics of young adolescents—specifically, their minds and their egos. From a cognitive-intellectual perspective, This We Believe (pgs. 53-62) reminds us that their minds process information and emotions differently, and they are prone to risk-taking behaviors. Therefore, we need to be patient with them as they misread verbal and nonverbal language, act out of anger, and then maybe reflect. We need to give them specific tools about conflict resolution, civil discourse, and mindfulness to support them in their angry moments, so they know how to respond. From the social-emotional and moral perspectives, they are deeply concerned with identity and themselves, and they are constantly trying to figure out where they stand. Therefore, we need to be patient with them and their anger as they do things to "save face" and establish and maintain their identities. We need to help them see other perspectives by sharing our own struggles and missteps and through strategies like role-play, self-compassion, and reflection activities. We need to help them understand that it's okay to be wrong. That you don't have to start hating someone because they aren't your friend right now. That anger can be a constructive tool—instead of a destructive tool. And, of course, we need to remember that young adolescents' unique characteristics don't excuse their anger; they provide us with a lens through which to understand it.
Finally, we must never forget what we were like as a young adolescent and what got us angry, how we dealt with it, and what help we wish we had on that raucous and rocky road.
What We Should Do So All Students Succeed
Access: Why would we look at middle level education through the lens of access? What effect does access have on specific stakeholders—including ourselves? How does access (or lack thereof) affect teaching and learning in the critical middle grades? What do we do when we have an "access gap" in our schools? How many questions can I string together before I get to the point? Now that all of these musings and queries are simmering in your cognitive stew pots, let's stir them around and see what we get. Shall we?
First, questions about access are important for us to consider if we are going to fulfill the promise articulated in This We Believe that our school environments must be "inviting, safe, inclusive and supportive of all" (p. 14). Access in an amazing middle school translates into consistent efforts towards equity for all students and stakeholders—in terms of resources, chances, and opportunities to grow and succeed. The opposite, exclusivity, creates an atmosphere that benefits, provides for, or celebrates only a selected few. And while those students reap the benefits and enjoy the spotlight, others languish, disconnect, and learn that they are not worthy or not worth the trouble. And with young adolescents in particular, this can be the beginning of their dropout mentality and narrative. Why should I care to come to school if no one really cares about me and what I'm about? They aren't even thinking about me at all, so I'm out. They might not say this out loud, but you know you can see it in their body language and in their silence.
So how do we change this narrative and close the access gap? Shifting a school from an atmosphere of exclusivity to inclusivity takes an equal mix of recognition, action, and determination. To recognize the access issue, we must first see our school through the eyes and hearts of the disconnected and marginalized. For example, let's look at access to recognition. When a leadership team looks at the school's academic celebration program, for example, that team needs to determine if all students have access to it and needs to figure out how all students can be celebrated. Is it just for kids who get Honor Roll, Super Honor Roll, and Perfect Attendance each semester? Our middle school administrative team asked that very question, recognized the problem, and decided on an action. We reshaped our honor roll program by creating a monthly recognition initiative that celebrated more students in four key areas: Academics, Arts, Athletics, and Altruism. And we told teachers, staff, and students that anyone can earn this monthly distinction; for instance, an "at-risk" student who created a great poster project about paramecium could get an Art award in science. A student struggling in ELA could get an Altruism award for the simple, profound act of holding a door open for others. Because we were profoundly determined to make this program work, we had profound results: more students were celebrated, more families were honored for their work on the homefront, and more school spirit was generated because more kids felt appreciated and had access to the spotlight.
Now let's look at access to extracurricular offerings. When a Student Activities department looks at the school's clubs and sports program, that department should determine if all students have access to it and figure out how all students can enjoy healthy, engaging activities that promote involvement, physical wellness, and team-building. That's why many schools are retooling their competitive extramural programs and adding non-competitive, inclusive, fun intramural sports that rotate every quarter... because athletics in the middle grades shouldn't be relegated to the kids who make the team. That is also why many schools are including clubs and activities during the school day—instead of after school... because clubs in the middle grades shouldn't be available only to the kids whose families can pick them up at school when clubs are over. All students deserve access to great opportunities to connect and grow with their teachers and peers.
Last but certainly not least, let's look at access to success. Specifically, in the areas of academic achievement and mentorship, a school leadership team should explore whether or not there are access gaps in those areas. Homework, for instance, is considered a critical formative assessment tool that we often use to evaluate student progress and understanding. No surprise there. And when we think about access in terms of our homework assignments, it can be tempting to imagine that our young adolescents go home at the end of the day to all the resources they need to continue learning, studying, and doing our assignments. That is a dangerous assumption—and one that furthers the access gap. While there are countless students who go home to environments that have ample resources to help with homework (materials, time, family members, quiet, technology, etc.), there are many students who don't. Their after school time looks and feels very different. So when a grade level, interdisciplinary team, or leadership team discusses the topic of homework, it should do so through the perspective of an under-resourced student and explore the purpose, nature, and effect of homework overall. Is the achievement gap with homework widening because of an access gap? In addition to homework, students may also have limited access to strong, consistent, positive-minded mentors that can help them achieve. That's why advisory programs are a Tier 1 Intervention on the RTI/MTSS pyramid; they are universally awesome for all young adolescents because they give all students equal access to adult advocates and mentors every day. A school leadership team should, therefore, examine the vision, tenets, and practices of its advisory program to determine if it is fulfilling its aimor if it is allowing the access gap to continue.
Bottom line: Every young adolescent we serve deserves access—because the effects are tremendous. When we provide access to all students, it reconnects the disconnected. It rekindles hope in kids who are growing hopeless. It instills purpose in students who are becoming aimless. It shows students who are disenchanted that we care about them. It fulfills the democratic promise upon which our schools were founded.
The Invisible Elevator in Your School, and How to Make it Work
This week, we're checking out Advocacy and Agency in the middle grades. Normally in this blog, we focus on one word at a time, but I'm going to break that rule and offer up a 2 for 1 special. A buy 1 get 1 free. A lagniappe for your cognitive grocery bag. Why? First, because I'm a giver. Second, because I think advocacy and agency are critical pieces of string woven together in the fabric of student empowerment. They can't be pulled apart. When treated with care, their fabric grows and offers security, welcome and assurance for all students. From a foodie perspective, they are also essential ingredients in the recipe of positive student growth that cannot be separated. As we allow them to simmer, their flavors complement each other and provide young adolescents with bottomless bowls of emotional nourishment, warmth, and trust.
While they can't be separated, let's check out each one separately, shall we? Advocacy first. As This We Believe states, an effective and amazing middle school is a place where "every student's academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate" (p. 35). Yes. Young adolescents thrive when they know there are reliable, consistent, caring adults in their lives. People who care about them beyond their content areas. People who think about them beyond their test scores. People who offer safe harbor when the adolescent seas get rough. People who listen to them when the clouds of worry hover and linger. People who speak up for them when they feel like they have no voice. People who communicate—through both word and deed—that there is no such thing as the forgotten middle. When advocates like this fill our middle schools, young adolescents don't just attend school. They thrive.
How does this advocacy work happen? Through both expected and unexpected actions. Through scheduled, consistent mechanisms like advisory, interdisciplinary teams, and looping, students bloom because they are supported members of a smaller learning community. Advocacy also happens through unscheduled, random acts of caring and relationship-building, making students flourish—because they realize that positivity is a possibility in any class, doorway, hallway, bus dock, and cafeteria table. And to be clear, the goal of advocacy work isn't to create a system of dependency, where students think/believe/feel like they can't progress without an adult holding their hands. Rather, the aim is to foster an environment that encourages students to ask bold questions and explore—because they know they have a safe place to land.
In fact, when young adolescents have advocates in the middle grades, they develop another powerful mindset: self-efficacy in all areas of their learning lives. When adult advocates are active in the middle grades, a student's internal monologue of self-efficacy sounds like this, "My math teacher cares about me and thinks I can do this, so I think I can do this, too. I may struggle, but she's there when I need her. My reading teacher listens to me and tells me that I'm making progress, so I'm going to keep trying even though reading is tough for me. I can do this. I can make this happen. I can achieve more than this. Because my teachers have my back." As students see themselves as actors in their own success, their self-efficacy grows. That's one of the key by-products of advocacy in the middle grades, and that's why it's so essential.
Advocacy also drives agency, which is the invisible elevator that exists in every middle school. Once students gain a sustained sense of self-efficacy (i.e., "I can do this math problem."), they also learn that they have the ability to change their lives beyond the schoolhouse. The empowerment they feel when they fix a run-on sentence, solve a science query, or develop a novel idea in social studies fosters more self-efficacy, more empowerment, and more agency. Indeed, when young adolescents have a sense of agency, they begin to take on leadership roles in their schools and their communities—fixing neighborhood conflicts, solving local issues, developing novel ideas for authentic problems.
How does this agency work happen? Through our daily practice and through larger efforts as well. Agency is fostered when we promote growth mindset, challenge all students, and encourage creativity and purposeful risk-taking. Agency is also grown through larger initiatives, such as service-learning projects. Not only do service-learning projects bring interdisciplinary learning to life, but they also show young adolescents that they can research an issue that matters to them, that they can take action, and that they can have actual impact. This kind of learning also transforms how other people see middle school students; instead of characterizing them as aimless, the community will begin to see them as purposeful and on target. In other words, the invisible elevator of agency has the ability to lift students up and take them to places and levels they once thought unachievable—and to show the world what young adolescents can achieve.
- So how does your middle school advocate for all students?
- And how does each teacher and staff member advocate for their students?
- Do your students have a sense of agency? How do you know?
- What specific actions, initiatives, and programs are being used to foster agency in your school?
- Who advocates for you—as a teacher, administrator, staff member?
- Do you feel like you have agency over your learning life? Why or why not?
And Say Hello to the Letter A for Amazing Middle Grades!
We've checked out several B words that relate to the marvelous, magnificent middle grades, but before we bid adieu to this letter, here's a list of other B words that are worth our time and consideration. What's on your list?
- Binary: Students should be empowered to make learning choices, and they should be working alongside others to grow, to flourish, to explore, to be challenged, to set goals, to stumble, and to achieve... without the divisive binary of "I'm the teacher, you're the student." They need to see teachers and administrators as learners, too.
- Burger: Education is a process of assembling and constructing to meet unique learning needs and tastes (while also fostering a learning community), and a food that resembles that process is the burger. It can be tailored to fit the learning palette, while also offering opportunities to stretch/push it. Some learners (including teachers, staff, and administrators) may want a plain burger of learning, but they actually need it with mayo and pickles—so adding those pieces to the meal is essential to helping them expand and grow.
- Because: Do the right thing, the best thing, the most helpful thing, the kindest thing for the young adolescents and the people we serve just…. because. Yes, more praise or more pay may be reasons to do more, but we should remain driven by the power of just because. Doing the right thing for others for no reason at all can show our students (and other adults around us) that a learning community grows when service and kindness aren't mandated—they just happen.
- Back: Back has so many meanings with the critical middle. We need to always look back and remember what we were like as young adolescents. We need to encourage our students and families to give back to their schools and communities. And we need to have each other's backs when times get tough. Our young adolescents need adult advocates that they can fall back on as they navigate their tempestuous seas.
- Blinders: What sets a true middle school apart is that its teachers and staff always have their eyes open—for the good stuff and the rough stuff. Even when it would be easier to do so, no one puts their blinders on. No one shuts their door and says, "None of my business." They are looking for changes in students, so they can respond proactively and celebrate early and often. They are watching their fellow teachers so they can support one another and also grab/steal/borrow their great pedagogical tricks.
- Boom: At an effective and amazing middle school, learning is engaging, differentiated, and filled with BOOM! Young adolescents need curriculum that is integrative, exploratory, challenging, relevant, and explosive. Like asteroids that make huge impacts on the earth, our teaching should leave indelible impressions on the lives of young adolescents we serve.
Now we get to the start of it all. The letter A. First, the sound of this letter is perfect for the middle grades. It can resemble a celebration, an epiphany, an exclamation that someone has just learned something wonderful—as in, "Ay, I got it!" Or it can cut through the air like a stinging rebuttal, a tense refusal, a sharp accusation—as in, "Ay, leave me alone!" In other words, just the sound of this letter illustrates the potential triumph and challenge of middle school.
And in terms of the shape of the letter, it looks like teaching, learning, and leading in the middle grades, as well. There is goal at the top, a climb to meet that goal, and a supportive handhold in the middle to help us as we ascend. In fact, that middle bar also steadies us if we should descend in the other direction after we reach our goal. As an English Language Arts and Reading teacher, to me the letter A resembles the classic plot diagram that begins with the setting and characters, moves to the rising action, reaches the climax (a word that you need to use cautiously with young adolescents), and finally moves on with the falling action, resolution, and denouement. This diagram can be used to help our students examine decisions they need to make or to assist them as they examine actions they've already made. What goal do they want to reach? Who is going to be a protagonist to support them? Who is going to be an antagonist to challenge them? What internal and external conflicts can they anticipate and how can they meet them? How will they know when they've reached their goal? How will they celebrate and reflect once they've attained it so they can grasp the themes and the enduring understandings? That's what the A is all about in sound and sight.
What "A" words will show up in the weekly blogs to come? Stay tuned to find out, AMLE friends and neighbors!